Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.

Do not adjust your set

The second week of quarantine in early March, two years, um, months ago, the sound on the television in our living room went out. The picture was fine – just no sound. Now let me preface this story with the humbling confession that my dear wife and I are woefully inept when it comes to any repairs of a technical nature. In short, there will be cussing (mine) and there might be tears (both).

So, I made the dreaded call to Spectrum and went through the automated menu to learn that there were no outages reported in my area. Thanks. Then I held and held and held to talk to a human who walked me through refreshing (stupid word for unplugging everything) my TV. Yep, still no sound. The same thing happened a few months ago and we were told it was probably a bad cable and we should use another cable outlet for the audio. Somehow, we managed to do this, and sound was restored.

No such luck on this Sunday morning. I had purchased a new cable cord to have on hand for such a situation, so we entered the Black Hole of Cords behind the television set. Of course, there’s only room for a small child (and lots of dust) behind there, so that only adds to the frustration. We tried what felt like 101 variations of plugging things in to no avail. And then we did what so many good people who had gone before us have done – we gave up. Yep. We made a conscious decision that our marriage was more important than the sound on our TV and I feel pretty good about that.

Full disclosure – this situation was not as dire as it might have been. The sound on our Roku worked just fine so our streaming lives were saved. We hardly ever watch anything on regular TV anyway – except sports (me) and MSNBC (me). My wife enjoys some HGTV when she has a rare break from her live-in program director (me).

So, we really haven’t been all that inconvenienced by no sound on our TV and in the case of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force briefings, it has been a true blessing. I started “watching” them on Twitter so I would not miss anything important like what a great job he is doing and where to insert my glow stick if I begin to feel ill.

And just the other day, I realized that a television with no sound is the perfect metaphor for this pandemic. We can see, but we really have no idea what is going on. And we can try and change the channel, but the result is still the same – nothing. Most of us are sitting at home anxiously waiting to hear what the new not normal normal will be. We see talking heads and fancy graphs, but we aren’t hearing what we long to hear… “It’s going to be okay.“

Crickets.

So, we return to the Neverland of Netflix where people are still going out to dinner and hugging their friends and getting on airplanes to go to beautiful places.

Damn. We may never get that TV fixed.

Gate change

“Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy, because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise.”

~ John Patrick Shanley

Maybe that is why we are all so tired these days. Blame it on doubt. I usually blame it on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – and you can certainly connect the dots on that one, but I’m doubling down on doubt today. We are living in a constant state of uncertainty and it is absolutely exhausting.

Some days I feel like I’m on a moving walkway at an airport. You remember airports, don’t you? Anyway, I have my suitcase and I am making my way to my gate – only I don’t know where my gate is. In fact, I have no idea where I am going. I don’t even have a ticket, but it doesn’t really matter because the walkway never ends. It just keeps moving forward into the unknown.

This is life in a global pandemic. A one-way ticket to uncertainty. Who the hell knows what to pack? Besides lots of snacks, of course. No kidding, this is hard and the reality of it sent me into the dark hole of despair this week.

I have written before about my superpowers of denial, but they dissolved this week. I’m sure it was the cumulative effect of everything most of us are dealing with – fears about our health and our loved ones, fears about security, fears about what the future will look like when the gates open again.

Putting the COVID-19 smorgasbord of anxiety aside, there were two things that happened this week that made me feel the brutal reality of this pandemic in my gut. The first, innocently enough, was a virtual vestry meeting after a Zoom worship service on Sunday. In the Episcopal church, my church, the vestry is like a board of directors – conducting parochial business. We normally meet once a month, but since the quarantine in early March, we have been connecting weekly.

We divided up the church directory and each vestry member has been responsible for checking in on parishioners. Each week we spend the top of our meeting with updates and last Sunday, our rector told us that she had heard from some older members of our parish that they won’t be returning to the physical church until there is a vaccine. Lysol and grow lights aside, the most optimistic projections for a vaccine are a year or more away. Believe me, I want these dear wise owls at my church to stay home and safe, but I just can’t imagine not seeing them in person for that long. Damn you, reality.

The other event that leveled me was more of a Six Degrees of COVID-19. My sister, who manages some oncology clinics in East Bay, CA, had to inform her staff of a 20% pay cut. The freeze on elective surgeries during this pandemic has left medical providers reeling from a revenue perspective. She also had to lay off some temporary staff, including a cheerful young man who has been living in his car. Cue gut punch.

My sister had told me about this man weeks ago – how earnest and kind he was and how much he appreciated his job. He worked at the front desk and greeted everyone enthusiastically. He had shared his housing situation with my sister and she and her assistant were able to discreetly help him with some new clothing and toiletries. She dreaded giving him the news earlier this week and when I talked to her that evening, I asked her how it went. She said the young man said, “Thank you for this opportunity. I’ve learned so much.” True story.

I got off the phone with my sister and sat down in the chair in my office in the dark and I wept for a young man I will never meet. To be honest, I also wept for my denial. It was shattered, crumbling like a piece of fine crystal being tapped with a hammer. It was my pandemic tipping point.

There is no denying the uncertainty in which we are all living. 50,000 dead and counting as I write this. A friend shared the tweet below with me and it made me feel better – to know that someone else was feeling this way.

I imagine a lot of people are feeling this way and you know what? It is okay to feel that way – any way you are feeling about all of this. Anxiety, fear, grief, anger – we need to feel it. One of the truest things I ever read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking – her stunningly raw account of her husband’s sudden death and how she navigated that first horrible year without him. She writes that “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” That, my friends, is as real as it gets.

I have been grieving the things I miss in this beautifully broken world and I am grieving the loss of certainty. The late Jane Kenyon is one of my favorite poets and I have found myself returning to her words again over the past several weeks. Her poem Otherwise is an achingly lyrical appreciation for the here and now and a haunting lamentation on uncertainty. I’ve been reading it a lot on the walkway. Hang on to your boarding pass and your humanity, folks. This could be a long one.

Otherwise

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day

But one day, I know

it will be otherwise.

Finding grace at Trader Joe’s

I’ve never really enjoyed grocery shopping, but COVID-19 has made me approach this ordinary task like a Navy SEAL. Gone are the days of just running in to pick up something. Grocery shopping today requires strategy – and PPE. Have mask, will shop.

So, I set out yesterday morning and went through my litany. List. Check. Wipes. Check. Sanitizer. Check. Anxiety. Check. I arrived at Trader Joe’s shortly before nine. Shout out to TJ’s – they have done an excellent job of adhering to safe distancing guidelines. There are blue tape strips on the sidewalk outside the store marking the magical six feet and they have a traffic controller outside only allowing so many people in the store at once. Meanwhile, another employee is constantly sanitizing carts. Once in the store – you’ll see more blue strips, reminding you to stay in your lane.

No one looks like they’re enjoying their outing. There are plenty of awkward moves as folks try to avoid each other while snagging a beautiful avocado. Things get a little more tense when you approach the bin where the highly sought after Danish Kringle resides. Behold the Kringle, a sinfully delicious Scandinavian flat ring of pastry. Trader Joe’s Kringle even has a calendar. True story – the flavors change every quarter and the most popular one, almond, comes out after Thanksgiving. I’m grateful that the COVID-19 Kringle is raspberry – not my favorite so no reason to risk my life to grab one.

I got the essentials – Greek yogurt, hummus and wine. And maybe some more wine. I head to the checkout and find myself behind a very elderly woman. It was a warm and sunny morning, but she was wearing a teal raincoat and had a floral scarf wrapped around her head (not her face). And she was wearing sunglasses. Think Little Edie without the cats.

Her cart was full of various canned goods – beans and tuna and such. She asked the cashier to give her a running total of what she was purchasing. Yes, I had definitely picked the wrong line (per usual) and as I rolled my eyes, I surveyed an escape route. I decided a pandemic is no time to be changing lines and took a deep breath. I must remind myself to do this several times a day now.

Meanwhile, the cashier was patiently and kindly calling out the total to Edie. When the grand total was announced – something close to $60, Edie started pulling out items for the cashier to remove from her bill. Clearly, she had a budget and she was not going over it. I thought for a moment of offering to pay for the discarded items, but there was the bold blue tape reminding me to stay where I was, and I wanted to respect this woman’s space and privacy. Once she got within her budget, she pulled out a roll of paper bills from her pocket. I’m pretty sure I gasped. Paper bills! Surely that’s where COVID-19 goes camping. The sweet cashier (who was wearing gloves) never missed a beat as she counted the multiple bills and gave the woman her change.

Edie didn’t want her items bagged – she told the cashier that she had plenty of room in her trunk. Then the cashier thanked her – again, most cheerfully – and told her she hoped she would enjoy the beautiful day. I was mesmerized by her genuine benevolence to this rather eccentric woman. Surely it could have gone another way with a different cashier.

She greeted me and I took my place in front of her plexiglass shield. And then I heard my own muffled mask voice speaking to her, “You were so kind and patient with that woman. You are a lovely person.” Once it was out, there was nowhere to go. She looked at me a bit surprised, but not startled and as she started to respond to me, I could tell she was tearing up. She said, “That is such a nice thing for you to say. Thank you.” And then I teared up and we both looked at each other through our masks and the plexiglass and into each other’s eyes. And I knew that she was smiling, too. It was the most intimate moment that I’ve experienced during this wretched quarantine. It felt like the passing of the peace.

Two strangers sharing communion through the plexiglass of a pandemic.

I’m fairly certain this is how we save each other.

OK Zoomer

Do you want to Zoom? After “What’s for dinner?”, this is perhaps the number one most asked question during this COVID-19 quarantine. Kids do it, grandparents do it, even educated nerds do it. Seems like everyone’s doing it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Bless their hearts.

SNL comically captured this Zoomundrum on this past Saturday night’s digital episode. In a skit, co-workers, including two women who serve as support staff, hilariously portrayed by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, connect on a Zoom staff meeting. They are Zoom virgins and their discomfort and fear with the technology is palpable. At one point on the call, Bryant’s character carries her laptop into the bathroom – not knowing that she is still on camera. Watch it on YouTube and thank me later.

Now let me be clear – I am far from technically savvy, so I’m not throwing any cyber stones here. I’m just making a few observations and trying to get your mind off what you’re going to make for dinner. My community service during the time of plague if you will.

So, here are a few personas I have observed in my glut of Zoom gatherings:

The Newbie. This person is taking the plunge because someone they love asked them to, but they are clearly out of their comfort zone. Once they enter the Zoom room, they have a panicked look on their face – like they’ve gotten on the wrong flight. Their eyes are darting around all over the place as if they’re looking for the exit door. The first words they utter are usually, “Am I on?”. When someone answers them, they almost jump out of the screen as if they’re hearing the voice of God. It’s okay, newbie, everyone remembers their first time.

The Hostage. This Zoomer acts like they are being held against their will. They slip in without saying anything and are usually sitting in dim lighting in a room normally reserved for storage – like you can see the tubs of Christmas decorations in the background. They rarely participate and sometimes even forget to blink. They can’t wait for the meeting to be over.

The Showoff. You know this person. They’ve downloaded all the “cool” Zoom backgrounds because well, this isn’t their first Zoom rodeo. They just can’t wait for someone to comment on their backdrop and gush about how clever they are. I find these backgrounds disturbing. I was on a Zoom with a guy who had the Golden Gate Bridge as his backdrop, and it looked like he was going to jump. Very distracting.

The Chatterbox. It doesn’t matter if this person is in a room with you or a Zoom with you – they are always going to talk the most and interrupt the most. And annoy you (okay, me) the most. Pro tip: Eye-rolling must be nuanced on Zoom – never forget that the camera is on.

The Unmutable. This is often a subset of the Chatterbox. This person is oblivious to the mute button and will often provide unnecessary – and unwanted – commentary on whatever the center square is saying. They also often tend to ignore the other folks on the meeting who are pleading, “Mute your mic!”. I think it’s fine to throw in a quick on-screen eye-roll if they continue to not mute.

The Family Guy. This dude is quarantined with a large family and thinks the best place to log on is the kitchen table, so we get to see his cranky kids and black Lab running in and out of the screen frame. The dog is adorable, but stay in your square, man!

I’m personally not accepting that many Zoom invitations. And, no, it’s not because I’m 100% that bitch. My dear wife is a psychotherapist and has been seeing her clients via teletherapy for the past month. We live in a 1,200 sq. ft. condo and her new office is our dining room table. It has been a stressful transition – for her, for me, and for her clients – many of whom are older and not used to such technology. God bless ‘em for being game for keeping their appointments. Sometimes it takes a while to get them connected, but everyone seems to be getting with the new normal as the days go by.

My wife is the poster girl for Good Boundaries (something I deeply admire about her) and we are strictly adhering to HIPAA guidelines. She has a white noise machine she has running during her appointments and if I’m home – I’m in my office with my headphones on. Our cat has tried to interrupt a few sessions, but she isn’t one to talk out of school. That said, I have enjoyed hearing some funny stories when my wife is done with work. A few weeks ago, she called a client who had not logged on for her appointment. The client answered the phone and when my wife reminded her of the appointment she said, “Oh, yeah, but I’m not wearing a shirt.” True story. Note: She found a shirt before she logged on.

At the end of the day, my wife is absolutely fried. She thinks teletherapy is more difficult than in-person therapy for a myriad of reasons, but she’s profoundly grateful that she can continue doing her job during this pandemic. And I feel really good about her job security since I think therapists, after hairdressers, will be the busiest people once we are released from our COVID captivity.

The last thing she wants to do after work is join a Zoom anything. She often takes a walk or steps outside for some fresh air. We both enjoy the silence at the end of the day and a no screen zone for a bit. And then we’ll have some dinner and relax with a nice Netflix drama about serial killers.

I appreciate that Zoom has been vital to enabling people to do important things from home – work, worship and stay connected to family and friends, but I find myself defaulting more and more to old school communication as this pandemic wears on. I’ve always been a note writer, but I’m rapidly depleting my robust stash of cards and stationery. There’s something so intimate to taking pen to paper to communicate with another human being. And isn’t it nice to get something in the mail besides a bill?

I’ve also been reminded that my phone can be used for something besides texting. The other day, I was on the phone with my best friend from college for almost two hours. I was aware that my right ear was getting kind of hot, but I had absolutely no idea we had been talking for that long. It was delicious and I felt so much lighter after our conversation. She lives in Berkeley, CA and has been living in quarantine since early March. The reality of COVID-19 is much closer to her and I am reminded to be grateful that NC is weathering this mighty storm pretty well.

Maybe Zoom is working for you and if it is, that’s great. I just know that I need to connect in a more visceral way with the people I care about. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just stay connected – to others and your own humanity. At the end of the day, it’s our only superpower.

Well, that and Amy’s frozen pizza. Stay home, stay safe.